Slip Road

by Tade Thompson

An earlier version of this story first appeared in Expanded Horizons Issue 10 (August 2009).

I have been trying to remember something.

It’s lost like car keys, like the song on the tip of your tongue. I can’t seem trace my steps, but I write down the few things I do remember.

#

I do not belong in this town, this much I know. I am a stranger here, and I do not know when I arrived. There is a ring on my finger that tells me I am married. The name of the town is Lafia. I know it is in the north of Nigeria because the voices I hear outside the window are in Hausa which I recognise but do not speak or understand. At times there are snatches of Pidgin English, but not a lot.

The voices bother me because I never see anyone, even when I leave this bungalow. I hear children in the school house when I go there to get writing materials. They learn their ABCs and 123s by rote, reciting couplets and giggling. They are undisturbed when I pick up pens and pencils. The pencils are low quality and when I use them I smudge the paper with my fingerprints.

Today the sun is out. Trees sway like wise, thin old men. They do not stare at me like they did the week before. Lafia’s main thoroughfare is a dusty road of red earth and on both sides Long John bicycles lean against mud huts, gunpowder gourds hanging from handlebars like scrota. I hear livestock, some feeding contentedly, others squealing as women murder them for their husbands’ dinner.

My belly grumbles, reminds me of the relentless hunger. There is plenty of food in Lafia. The fields are full of maize, cassava and vegetables. Crops grow lush and heavy here. I have been into kitchens and opened cooking pots full of beef stews and fufu. When I eat there is no taste to the food. A few days ago I ate two dozen chilli peppers and felt nothing. My saliva does not come at all. I try to dry swallow, especially eba with okra soup which should by rights just slide down my throat whether I make spit or not, but my throat is as defective as my memory. I chew and chew, knowing this is what I am meant to do. When I try to swallow my throat does not obey the impulse it has had since birth. No wave begins to drive the food down to my waiting, complaining stomach.

I replenish my stationary supplies from the school and return to the bungalow. I write until nightfall. I hear a single voice at night, her voice, Bola’s voice.

I think Bola is my wife. When I sit quietly I can almost see her, or imagine I can see her. A hint of a hint of a hint of an image in my mind. Each time I hear her I feel a different kind of hunger, this time in my heart. She speaks, she says:

He uttered the cry of a creature hurled over the abyss.

I write this down, but I know it by heart now because she has said this many, many times before. They are not her words, and she recites them, but I cannot remember where from.

On some nights she goes on and on, but tonight she is mostly silent.

#

I see the detritus of daily living.

I see the mounds ants build in the soil wet from recent rains. I see the feed left for chickens on the ground and the contented clucking. I see, in the houses I explore, cell phones on chargers, washing on lines, the fermentation of palm wine. I see clay work built up by invisible artists over weeks, maybe months until the figure is complete. Pinch pots and idols and clay animals. I see chalk marks made by children and graffiti made by adults, the messages tainted with misology and blind tradition.

The most modern building in Lafia is the municipal building which a plaque proudly proclaims was built in 1962. The block reminds me of my thesis in university which was on the 1962 trade pact between Russia and Cuba and its effect on emergent black African Nations. The history degree does not help in the bank where I work, but it does throw random facts into my head at odd times.

A local constabulary sign states Police is your Friend.

Drag marks on the ground from celebrations and scuff marks in the dust from wrestling bouts.

Depleted fires.

Every day I record this in my writing so I don’t forget.

#

The next morning is different. I have a headache and when I leave the bungalow I cannot feel the wind. I know there is a breeze because I see leaves and scraps of paper moving along Lafia’s roads along with dust devils. I cannot hear the voices and this frightens me. There is a red jeep parked in front of the bungalow. I think it is red, but I no longer feel sure of the nature of colours or my ability to identify them. Is it red, or am I just calling it that because I can remember the word ‘red’? I touch it, touch the bonnet, but it is cold. The engine has not been running. The car has no side mirrors and peeking through the glass I see no rear view either. In fact, there are no mirrors in Lafia. I have been in every bathroom, living room, shop window and even the barber and hairdressers. Shiny surfaces reflect only light, not images. Water is dull. As a result I do not know what I look like. My legs are like reeds, my belly concave, my arms skinny. My forearm skin is light brown, café-au-lait. My nails are bitten down to non-existence, although I do not recall ever biting them.

In my memory I repeat a myth to Bola about nails. I say human nails and hair grow after death. She laughs and says that’s another Dominic Fact. She tells me what happens is that as the body loses water the tissues and skin shrink around hair and nails, making them seem longer. I am often unreliable when it comes to facts, hence the term Dominic Facts. I think.

The tread on the jeep’s tyres is factory fresh, as if it dropped from the sky rather than being driven here. It feels like someone is keeping a secret from me, or that there is a joke I’m not in on.

I return to the bungalow.

#

That night I try to leave the town. I just walk out, leaving behind the Municipal Building which marks the limits. The path is homogenous with repeating patterns of palm trees, a nauseating sameness. I keep this up for an hour and reach nowhere. When I look around Lafia is right behind me, as if it has been following me all along. It maintains a distance of fifty yards. I run. I walk backwards. No difference.

I go back and write about it with intermittent, furtive glances out the window at the parked jeep. My soundtrack is Bola’s voice repeating over and over:

He uttered the cry of a creature hurled over the abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.

I sleep without dreaming and when I wake there are no voices. The muezzin does not call for the faithful. The cock does not crow. The light is less bright, the sky a cloudless blue. I worry about this. Will I retreat into myself, senses decreasing until I go blind and can only see the pictures in my minds eye?

I scream as loud as I can, as primal as I can muster, just to hear the sound vibrate in my skull.

‘Dominic?’

This is Bola’s voice, and she is here, in the room, clear as water. I see her wedding ring, and it is like mine. She is my wife and I remember her. Seeing her dislodges whatever clogs my memory.

‘Bola,’ I say.

‘This is a dream,’ she says. ‘I haven’t thought of you in years.’

Bola’s favourite book is The Turn of the Screw. Henry James. She reads and rereads it. Her policy is that there is no need to be promiscuous with books. Find a good one and stick with it.

I reach for her, but she steps back.

‘Bola?’ I say.

‘Why are you still here?’ she asks. She sounds regretful.

‘I…I’m waiting for you,’ I say.

‘No, you’re not. Don’t you remember?’

I cannot bring myself to speak, but I know what she’s about to say.

‘You drove us from Lagos to see my sister Deji and her husband Benjamin. Do you remember?’ She talks like one would to a child, with careful enunciation.

I feel nauseated. I wonder how I can have nausea when my gut does not work anymore. I remember Benjamin. He loves to cut farts when he feels he is unobserved.

‘The journey was too long and we stopped at Lafia for the night. There was no hotel. They put us up in a bungalow.’

‘No.’

‘You heard a noise in the night and went out to investigate and never came back.’

‘No…’

‘The police thought you were killed for a ritual or something.’

‘No, I’m here now.’

‘Dominic, I had this dream of you for ages. I would come back to Lafia and you would be waiting for me and we would return to Lagos and everything would be as it was.’

‘Then let’s go. The car is outside.’

She shook her head with the finality of a completed autopsy, of a mortuary door slamming shut. She looks around the room, peers outside the window. ‘I haven’t been here for years.’

‘Take me out of here.’

‘Good bye, Dominic.’

She does not shimmer, she is just gone and the room is empty. I am not there either if she is to be believed.

#

I imagine something other, I tell myself a lie.

In my lie Bola and I pass the sign that announces Lafia and drive on.

‘It’s the middle of the night,’ says Bola. ‘This is dangerous. Armed robbers will throw a tyre rim at our car. I’ll probably be raped and murdered. Would you like that?’

‘We’ll be fine,’ I say. I negotiate the tortuous, potholed road, and watch headlights pierce the darkness ahead. ‘We’ll be with your sister and brother-in-law soon. You’ll be glad to see her. Just sleep for now.’

‘She’s not going to be glad to see us at this time of the night. She loves her sleep.’ She snorts and adjusts her position. ‘I guess it’ll be good to see Benjamin again. He’s funny isn’t he?’

‘Hilarious.’

‘Listen: “With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over the abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.”  My favourite part.’

‘I know. You recite it to me all the time.’

In truth, there is an empty room in the bungalow. There is the painful memory of Bola dreaming of me or maybe dreaming me. I struggle to slip back into a reality that violence edged me out of.

What now? Do I make noises, disturb the villagers, curdle their milk? Do I become a story for the moonlight tales, a creature with which to scare children to sleep?

I can live it again. I can read my notes, the very notes I’m writing right now, and I can remember Bola and her sister and pervert brother-in-law and the red jeep and make the whole thing happen over on my terms.

I crouch under the bed, extract all the notes I have made and throw them out of the door, trying not to look at the afflicted sky. Then I return to the room and start to write again. I remake the past on my own terms, and in this version I can find a slip road out.

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